Sunday, October 13, 2013

Secret deal reveals larger Bloominburg project from start 

In May 2006, a developer with deep political and business ties to this eastern Sullivan County village of about 400 signed a secret agreement to be the front man for a development of "at least 400 units of town houses" on some 200 acres. That's the same development that is now the target of virulent protests and outright fears, in part because it and its proposed private girls' school may become Hasidic.

But in that same month, that developer and former Mamakating Supervisor Duane Roe — who signed that "Confidential Retention Agreement" with developer Shalom Lamm and his partner, Kenneth Nakdimen — told a completely different story to the Bloomingburg Village Board, and whomever would listen.

It would be a development of 125 second homes, Roe recalls saying today. Scores of others also recall him saying that.

"The proposal is for upscale second home town houses in a golf course setting," says Roe in the minutes of that May 2006 Village Board meeting. "A gated community of upscale seasonal homes" with a golf course, pool and pond.

That's not all Mamakating native Roe said he would do for the village that sits within his hometown. He would blacktop Bloomingburg's Main Street — a street now dotted with empty shops. He would provide sewer and water for the development and surrounding area and get grant money to fix up Main Street. Plus, he told the village Planning Board just three months after that May 2006 meeting that he would secure $1 million for interest-free grants to revitalize that Main Street and "allow ... attractive lighting." He did not say he would be paid $1.4 million when the project was approved — money that was never paid when, in 2009, Lamm sued Roe for some $10 million and their partnership dissolved.

"He had credibility, authority," says Lamm, explaining why he chose Roe to be his front man. Lamm himself is the target of protests for what his many critics say is his secrecy and deception about the nature of the development, the Villages at Chestnut Ridge, part of Lamm's company, Sullivan Farms. Those critics say he should have revealed that the school and homes — which have the two sinks and stoves necessary for kosher homes — would become Hasidic, even though Lamm stresses that anyone can buy them.

"The massive, overwhelming inquiries have been from the religious community, and we wanted to prepare for it," he said about that proposed school last week, adding no homes have been sold.

Why say 'no'?
But back in 2006, who could resist a 125-home project and hometown developer?

Not long-time residents like then-Deputy Mayor Clifford Teich, a doctor who's lived in Bloomingburg for 58 years and has an office in the center of town — in an old gray-shingled home renowned for its outrageous Halloween decorations.

"It sounded like he was going to drop a million dollars from the sky," says Teich, who would vote to annex Mamakating land for the project that he believed would be 125 homes.

Today, that "second home, seasonal" development has morphed into the long approved 396-unit, town-house development — with the proposed private school — that was the focus of a glossy pullout in the Der Yid Yiddish-language magazine and several articles in Orthodox Jewish publications such as The 5 Towns Jewish Times, which features the headline "The New Chassidshe Shtetl Of Bloomingburg," complete with an image of the "Bloomingburg shul (synagogue)."

The project has brought howls of protest from residents of Bloomingburg, Mamakating and the Pine Bush School District. They're afraid of everything from increased traffic and higher school taxes to the loss of control of the school district and the rural way of life in this one-stoplight village surrounded by farms, fields and weathered gray barns.

"It's going to change the entire face of the town," said Lesleigh Weinstein before one of the two recent Bloomingburg Planning Board meetings about the proposed schoolthat were canceled because of overflowing crowds.

“I moved here for this,” says Holly Roche, gesturing to the Shawangunk Ridge mountain range, “not that.” She's the leader of the Rural Community Coalition, one of at least two groups that have formed to try to stop, delay or downsize the project that is now being built and marketed.

In fact, last year, two years after the project was approved, Roche's group filed a lawsuit to block it. But a state Supreme Court judge dismissed the suit, saying they had waited too long to file it, and the village had followed the rules of the approvals process, including holding public hearings about the projects.

Still, that has not stopped Roche and others from trying to find ways to fight it. They are looking for potential conflicts of interest between the developers like Lamm and Roe and government officials. They are also trying to find flaws in the way the project has been approved.

Gets past officials
An examination of available official documents and interviews with scores of residents tell a more complex story of how and why the project was approved – a story not only of apparent deception, but also of citizen apathy and, perhaps, the lack of attention of officials.

It begins with Roe, who freely admits he told anyone who would listen that he wanted to be build 125 homes with at least one golf course, even though he had that signed agreement with Lamm for those 400 homes.

Questioned last week, Roe said at first that he didn't really read the contract as well as he should have. He also mentioned how the project changed when the golf course was nixed because of wetlands and endangered species. Plus, even though he only mentioned those 125 homes, he now says, “There was always going to be the expansion (from 125 homes) from Day One. Why would you build a 325,000-gallon sewer plant for just that.”

But when pressed about the Confidential Retention Agreement, he said this:
“I represented to the village 125, never more than 125, but we knew all along we needed 395.”

Still, soon after Roe was telling people the project would be 125, or maybe even 180, homes with maybe “senior housing,” the project's representatives began telling town officials the project would be much larger. In January 2008, a representative of the project told the Planning Board there would be 200 town houses and about 102 family homes.

By February 2008, years after the village and town agreed to annex some 300 acres owned by Mamakating into the village and the zoning had been changed to allow the development, Roe and a project representative said there would be 102 single-family homes, 200 town houses and 93 patio homes “for a total of 395 clustered in groups within the golf course.”

And that ultimately is how the final State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA)Findings Statement was approved in July 2009 – minus the golf course.
“A residential community with 396 townhouse units, a community center, a number of community parks and a swimming pool on approximately 198.3 acres” – all legal according to Bloomingburg zoning.

That notice went to the Village Board and the Planning Board.

And that is what Bloomingburg approved in June 2010.

Yet at least one board member, then-Deputy Mayor Teich, still says he didn't know anything about those 396 homes, even though his name is on one 2008 document making a motion to authorize the Village Board as “the lead agency under SEQRA with respect to the proposed Chestnut Ridge development project” with “395 residential units.”

“I don't recall ever seeing it,” he says. “I never heard that many. I would have nixed it if I did.”

Bloomingburg Mayor Mark Berentsen did not return several calls for comment.
Because officials say only a handful of people went to the meetings in those days, many people didn't know about the scope of the project until Lamm started building. “For the last 31 years, only 3 people at the meetings,” said Teich, and only a few more came to the public hearings about the project. “Maybe 15,” says Planning Board Chairman Russell Wood.

“I think the wool was pulled over our eyes,” Teich says.

“My conscience is 100 percent clear,” says Lamm. “This is all about demonization.”

“I thought it was a match made in heaven,” says Roe, “but I made a mistake.”


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